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Complete coverage of Elections 2020. Reporting on major contested races in New Hanover and Brunswick Counties.

Elections 2020: NC Senate District 9 - Peterson Vs. Lee

  North Carolina’s Senate District 9 is a re-match of 2018.  Michael Lee is challenging incumbent Harper Peterson – who edged Lee out of the same Senate seat two years ago by only 231 votes.  WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn spoke with both of them as part of the 2020 CoastLine Candidate Interviews.

Breaking the state’s Republican supermajority was a primary reason Harper Peterson says he ran for the Senate seat in New Hanover County in 2018. 

Harper Peterson: My seat was the last one that got us over the top. So it was a historic election result.

This year, he wants to win a Democratic majority to advance legislation on the Cape Fear region’s water quality issues.  

HP:  In the minority, with the Department of Environmental Quality, we were able to move forward a Consent Order and that requires -- and now it's been expanded in the last few weeks -- that was a judge’s decision -- that Chemours had to address the air emissions and now the water emissions discharge into public waters and air and had to remedy that. 

Peterson says the Republican majority refuses to sufficiently fund the Department of Environmental Quality.  

HP:  So with DEQ, with essentially $5 in their pocket and a quarter tank of gas, has done some amazing things, underfunded, understaffed. I use the analogy of a police or fire department. Do you understaff and underfund your police for them to do their job? We've done that with DEQ, DHHS and the Department of Justice.  And we can correct that.  

Peterson also wants to address racial inequities in the state – starting with healthcare and expanding Medicaid.  And he wants to undo the current cap on financial judgments for those living near industrial swine and poultry farms. 

HP:  The poultry industry is five times the size of the swine industry, unregulated, unpermitted, untested it flies below the radar.  It self-regulates.  It's a catastrophe waiting to happen in our state. And I think we're the third largest poultry state in the country behind Georgia, Alabama, which have regulations, fair regulations in place and do very well.

Michael Lee was Senator from 2014 – 2018, and he credits his Water Safety Act with beginning the work to clean up toxic, unregulated compounds in the drinking water.    

Michael Lee:  We established a statewide monitoring network. We provided, even though they said we didn't, we provided additional funding, DEQ for enforcement of bad actors against bad actors. And to clear up a backlog of permitting, we gave the governor the power to shut down polluters. We required industry to identify and report every compound they intend to discharge into surface waters that had not really been done in a way that people could actually see it.

Testing, making that testing easily accessible, and research to understand the impact of the unregulated compounds, was the first step, says Lee.  

ML:  The second phase of what I was working on was to expand it beyond PFAS and expand it to 1,4 dioxane and some of the other compounds that we're finding across the state, not just in our waters.  The funding for the additional filter test has been amazing… UNC now has come up with a compound that can remove a hundred percent in the filtration process. 

Michael Lee criticizes Peterson’s opposition to the budget bill which never passed.  The Democratic minority upheld the Governor’s veto – largely due to the Republican refusal to include Medicaid expansion.   

ML:  If you're going to vote against an overall budget bill because there's something in there you just can't get over, if you're not going to vote for teacher pay raises and beach renourishment and shallow draft inlet dredging and all the things that are important to our area, if you're going to vote against all those things, because you feel so strongly about a particular issue, take those items, put them in another bill and try and get it passed.  

Early voting continues through October 31st.  Election Day is November 3rd.  


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.